Dear Word Detective: I am writing a research paper about the Democratic Republic of Congo, and I keep coming across this factoid in various sources — that the word “kleptocracy” was coined to describe the regime of Mobutu Sese Seko, who ruled the country from the mid-60s until 1997. Trouble is, when I went to look it up in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), their first reference for it was from 1811. On the other hand, every other reference was from the 1960s and 70s, when Mobutu was at the height of his power. So, I’m wondering: Was “kleptocracy” an obscure word which became well-known because of Mobutu? Or does this factoid have no basis in fact at all? — C. Sullivan.
Good question. Incidentally, I find it interesting that you are using the word “factoid” in something close to the sense Norman Mailer meant it when he invented it in his 1973 book “Marilyn.” Mailer defined “factoids” as pseudo-facts, “… facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper, creations which are not so much lies as a product to manipulate emotion ….” Unfortunately, USA Today and other news outlets have since used “factoid” to mean “interesting little fact,” a perversion that must please the famously irascible Mr. Mailer no end.
“Kleptocracy,” for those unfamiliar with the term, is “government by thieves,” from the Greek “kleptes,” meaning “thief,” plus “kratos,” meaning “rule, power.” Kleptocracy is one of a number of governmental forms usually deemed undesirable, including “plutocracy,” rule by the wealthy (“ploutos” in Greek), “oligarchy,” rule by the few (“oligoi” plus “arkhein,” to rule), and “autocracy,” rule by just one person (“auto” being Greek for “self,” also found in the term “autism”).
“Kleptocracy” was definitely not invented to describe Mobutu, although my OED lists 1819 rather than 1811 as the first use found so far. The question seems to be why it was used so rarely before 1968, the date of the next OED citation. Certainly dictators, oligarchs, autocrats, plutocrats and even quite a few democratically-elected rulers have robbed their citizens blind in the intervening years, yet they were not called “kleptocrats.” I think I’ll leave that question to the political scientists.